Charlotte Conley, Conservation Associate
I’d like to shed some light on a little known and secretive program within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): Wildlife Services. Wildlife Services has many roles, one of which is predator control. This often comes in the form of lethal management of many native carnivores, including gray wolves. Wildlife Services has recently been the subject of public scrutiny regarding unprofessional behavior of some of its employees; the deaths of non-target species, including an endangered Mexican gray wolf; and, failure to implement nonlethal management first before resorting to lethal management, suggesting that the program’s practices are inefficient, ineffective and scientifically unfounded.
Defenders has demonstrated through our flagship nonlethal coexistence project, the Wood River Wolf Project, that wolves and livestock can in fact share the same landscape with minimal conflict. In the six years the project has been in operation, no wolves have been lethally removed and less than 1/10th of 1% of sheep have been lost out of more than 27,000 that move through the project area each summer. In fact, Wildlife Services’ National Wildlife Research Center is a partner in that program.
The National Wildlife Research Center is a leader in nonlethal research, which develops and studies nonlethal management tools. But, there seems to be a disconnect between the research arm of the agency and practices on the ground. Even when the research center deems certain nonlethal methods effective, often Wildlife Services has been reluctant to implement them more broadly.
Defenders just submitted a letter to the USDA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) supporting a Congressional request for an audit of Wildlife Services’ predator control program. In the letter we emphasize the need for review in several key areas.
Private Contractor Mentality
Wildlife Services caters to private interests, mainly private agriculture producers and big game hunters¹. Field agents respond to producer requests acting like private contractors and treating the producers as customers. Too often, they allow producers to dictate the type of predator management they wish to see performed. This mentality is inappropriate for a taxpayer-funded federal agency and encourages ranchers to externalize the costs of doing business.
In many cases lethal management is the wrong tool to use to resolve human-wildlife conflict issues. Wildlife Services claims they use lethal removal only after nonlethal methods have been tried and failed. However, they are unable to provide any evidence to support that claim. A growing body of science has found that the agency’s lethal management of predators to protect livestock and big game is altering ecosystems in ways that diminish biodiversity, degrade habitat and invite disease. Ecologists have found that the removal of apex predators has led to irruptions of invasive and undesirable species, destabilization of ecosystems, reduced resiliency and loss of ecosystem services². Lethal predator control is not effective for reducing depredation over the long term³. Multiple studies of the gray wolf have found depredation relief to be short lived because remaining individuals and recolonizing packs depredate as often as the individuals removed would have [PDF]. We recommend proven non-lethal methods that are more likely to work for longer periods such as moving livestock away from wolf den sites, guard dogs, increased human presence, such as a range rider or herder, and temporary fencing with fladry.
Lack of Transparency and Accountability
Wildlife Services has become accustomed to a lack of transparency and accountability, often keeping many of their activities and their expenditures hidden from the public. For example, the agency does not report the amount spent on nonlethal management nor the amount spent managing a particular species, protecting a particular type of livestock, or the average expenditure per request for assistance. The public should be able to review evidence that nonlethal methods are correctly implemented and exhausted before Wildlife Services uses lethal management to address a request.
By 1915 Congress had appropriated funds to control wolves and coyotes, and Wildlife Services has been doing it ever since. But they’ve strayed from their original purpose of wildlife damage control to artificial manipulation of predator populations to boost big game. The official mission of the agency is “to provide Federal leadership in managing problems caused by wildlife…and to carry out Federal responsibility for helping to solve problems that occur when human activity and wildlife are in conflict with one another.” Nowhere in that mission is enhancing big game populations by gunning and trapping native predators. Wildlife Services needs to demonstrate its vision “to improve the coexistence of people and wildlife” and “develop and use wildlife damage management strategies that are biologically sound, environmentally safe, and socially acceptable.”
It’s time for Wildlife Services to focus on its vision which includes the modern scientific view of the importance of predators in maintaining healthy landscapes. They must use nonlethal management strategies—these are biologically sound, environmentally safe and socially acceptable. They must also be transparent and accountable to the American public. If you, as an American taxpayer, want to see more transparency, accountability and efficiency from this agency that you pay to work, click here to send your own letter to the Office of the Inspector General asking them to do a full audit of Wildlife Services’ predator control program.